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April 7, 2024

‘Awe and shock’: William Byron’s rebound, milestone moment swell the 40th-anniversary emotions

MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Jeff Gordon walked from the Turn 1 side of pit road on his way to the frontstretch Victory Lane set-up at Martinsville Speedway. Phone pressed to ear, the Hendrick Motorsports driver-turned-executive shared his post-race emotions with team owner Rick Hendrick on his way to congratulate a jubilant William Byron.

Forty years ago, Hendrick famously found out about his fledging team’s first NASCAR Cup Series win when pay phones were still a preferred method of communication and a call cost a dime. Flash forward to Sunday, and Gordon was transmitting text message updates, photos, and videos of the speedway’s scene, along with his joyous final reactions to Hendrick, in real-time.

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The centerpiece race of Hendrick Motorsports’ 40th anniversary season lived up to its hype and promotion, with Byron collecting the organization’s 29th grandfather clock trophy. For the team that’s done virtually everything there is to do at one of NASCAR’s most storied venues, Sunday was a new one — a 1-2-3 finish by a single team for the first time in Martinsville’s 151-race Cup Series history.

The steady patter of texted updates halted in the late going, with Gordon not wanting to jinx the outcome or do much else other than hold his breath. No wonder the phone call to his boss and business partner after the checkered flag — full of background commotion on both ends — was so sweet.

“When I did talk to him, we just had a great moment of kind of in awe and shock,” Gordon said, noting the team founder’s remorse in missing the celebration in person owing to his recovery from recent knee surgery. “Even as much as he’s accomplished, this company has accomplished, when we do things like today, especially something that’s never done before, the 1-2-3 finish at Martinsville, he’s just so humble and appreciative. I love that about him.”

RELATED: Race results | At-track photos: Martinsville

A crowd that the team estimated at 1,500 Hendrick Motorsports employees and their families shared in the joy, watching from a hospitality perch above the track’s second turn as all four of the team’s specially designed ruby-red cars placed among the top 10 — with Byron leading runner-up Kyle Larson, third-place Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman in eighth. Like the Wizard of Oz slippers of the same color clicking together, there was no place like home.

The notion, though, that Sunday’s Cook Out 400 would be an automatic coronation for one of the four was no sure thing. The Hendrick Motorsports fleet struggled mightily here in last fall’s Cup Series Playoffs race, with only Larson mustering a top-10 result in sixth place. Both Elliott and Bowman were outside of the top 15, and Byron willed his way into last year’s championship round by gutting out a 13th-place day that left him winded and dehydrated after climbing out of his No. 24 Chevrolet.

“I was spent last fall. I think that brought a lot of anxiety and nightmares coming up here this time,” Byron said. “I think just coming up the road and thinking about what’s the progress we’ve made inside the car, we’ve been working on it non-stop to try to get my helmet and fan feeling better. Then I’ve been doing a lot of work in the offseason, working out, things of that nature. It all adds up. Our car, we had a really tough day in the fall. One of the worst experiences as a team, but one of the best experiences to realize the resilience that our team has. That showed today. …

“It’s really a 180. I think that fall race gave us a lot of fuel to be able to come back here and try to create another good memory.”

WATCH: Byron discusses mindset on winning at Martinsville

Byron’s Cup Series win total now stands at an unlucky 13. Triskaidekaphobia aside, the 26-year-old star has been a regular contributor of Hendrick’s most memorable recent milestones. Larson made the organization the winningest in NASCAR history with Hendrick Motorsports’ 269th at the 2021 Coca-Cola 600, but in the years since, Byron has provided his own cherished additions to the team’s growing museum collection.

Byron notched Hendrick’s 300th win last fall at Texas Motor Speedway, added the team’s ninth Daytona 500 triumph to kick off this season, then delivered in the capstone moment of the team’s anniversary commemoration.

“He’s got to do more of it lately,” Larson said with a grin, “but it’s just really cool when you can win milestone races for the company because I know Rick wants this place to go on at least for the next 40 years, so days like today or those milestones, they’re gonna mean something. They meant a lot then, but they’re going to mean even more down the road. So yeah, that history within Hendrick is special, and when you can do something like what William did today, it means a lot.”

SHOP: Buy William Byron winner gear

When Gordon scored his first Cup Series victory 30 years ago, Hendrick Motorsports’ win total had only reached a modest 35. That total has only multiplied in the years that have followed, but so has the organization’s size and scope.

The emotions are different now as a part of the organization’s front office, but Gordon said he still felt connected to the feelings of being in the car and the anticipation that a keepsake moment was approaching. Days like Sunday and those phone calls to remember have helped Gordon embrace the role “beyond what I could ever imagine and dream of,” he said.

“There’s just so many things wrapped up in the emotions of what today meant from just the time spent with Rick and Linda planning for 40th anniversary, talking about all of our drivers who have won, what Martinsville means to this company, planning this day, having all of our folks here,” Gordon said. “Then the day comes, the weekend comes, and you just go, ‘How in the world did it all happen like this?’ I mean, I know our folks are super-talented and they work really, really hard. Kind of glad we got beat kind of bad last year in the fall because I think that really made them go to work and get ready for this event.

“I don’t even know where to begin, honestly. There’s so many things that are special. Immediately looked up on the hill and saw all those ruby-red shirts just going nuts. Now they’re out there waiting to have a picture with our whole organization. You just cannot plan it any better, script it any better.”